Offstage since day one, Anita Gaffney has played a role at the Stratford Festival for more than two decades.
The Western grad and Stratford native started out selling ice cream to theatre-goers as a summer job. She’s also worked as a bookstore clerk, a waitress and numerous other roles, including that of “master of the photocopier.”
Today, Gaffney, who holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Western (1990) and an EMBA from Ivey Business School (2002), is the festival’s executive director.
Her homecoming could just be her calling.
“My father’s construction company built the original theater in 1953 and the festival was something that was always revered in my family,” Gaffney said. “It’s part of why I feel so lucky to be here.”
Starting with a staging of Richard III starring Alec Guinness and Irene Worth in July 1953, the Stratford Festival – once known as the Stratford Shakespearean and Shakespeare Festival – has evolved into a seasonal institution in the city of Stratford, 60 km north of London. Although its mandate calls to present Shakespearean productions, the lineups include a variety of performances – from Greek tragedies to airy comedies.
Look down a list of festival alumni; it reads like a playbill of stage and screen elite from the last century – Hume Cronyn, Colm Feore, Lorne Greene, James Mason, Christopher Plummer, Sarah Polley, Jason Robards, William Shatner, Maggie Smith, Jessica Tandy, Peter Ustinov, Christopher Walken, among hundreds of others.
Into this tradition, Gaffney landed, although working for the famed festival in her hometown wasn’t part of the original plan.
“After graduating, I moved home and lived with my parents for a few months while I worked at a law firm. I wrote my LSATs, and started to apply. But I wasn’t sure my heart was in it. So, I thought to look to get a job in a communications department. I didn’t even know what that meant back then,” Gaffney said.
Her professional career started when she took on the position of publicity assistant at the festival six months later.
“I loved working here from the moment I got here; I loved being associated with the place. The work we do now is such high quality, and the people bring such a relentless standard of excellence that I was just thrilled to be a part of it in any way,” she said.
“I stayed late with the critics. I loved hearing their insights and perspectives on the productions. Working in publicity, you get to work with the media and you also get to work with the artists and I really enjoyed that. I got to learn a lot about the organization,” she continued.
Within a few years, Gaffney was the director of marketing at the festival, a position she took on “inexperienced and untested,” she said. As her experience and education in business broadened, so too did her portfolio, until she landed in her current role of executive director in fall 2012.
In her 23 years with the festival, Gaffney has seen a lot of changes in the world of theatre. Some years, the audience dwindled alongside revenue, while others came with unprecedented upswings in attendance. In everything, there was a learning opportunity and ways to improve the festival experience, she said.
“In 2002, we had the highest attendance we’ve had at the festival. It was the 50th anniversary season; I had just finished my EMBA; that was a fun time. Since, we’ve had challenges at the box office, financial challenges and those times can be interesting, too, finding ways to run more efficiently and finding new audiences,” Gaffney explained.
New projects and initiatives in the festival’s toolbox going forward include filming productions, with the hope of capturing the Shakespearean cannon over the next few years, as a resource for theatre professionals and students. The festival hopes to find a distribution network for the filmed productions.
Forum nights at the festival, featuring panel talks on playbill themes, were recently added to contextualize the plays for the public, brining in larger audiences and additional revenue.
Last year, there was a “healthy surplus,” Gaffney said, and the festival is continuing to do well.
Her idea to introduce a bus service between Stratford and Toronto has likewise helped, making the festival more affordable and easily accessible to patrons, costing a mere $10 each way. That service brought an additional 15,000 people last year alone, all people who said they might have come once in a season, but now came two or three times. A similar service is now offered out of Detroit.
Among its world-class productions of Shakespeare plays, the festival continues to offer programming for all ages, including productions that are meant to draw families. And patrons can expect more to come.
“I do love the relentless pursuit of excellence here. I like to be around that; it can drive some people crazy because it is a high-pressure environment where you’re all trying to live up to this standard, but I find that very stimulating to be around,” Gaffney said.